A couple of weeks ago I was in the pub with the Doc, accompanying him to what could loosely be described as a reunion with a number of his old uni pals. It was a relatively summery day (although you wouldn’t have known it from the dankness of the public house), so when asked what I wanted to drink, I responded with “Pimms.” Naturally.
Now for those who have not already figured it out, I am indeed pregnant. On this day I was probably around 20 weeks or so. Fortunately, I wasn’t really showing too much so I was spared the disapproving looks, if indeed there were to be any. But as I sat with my drink in hand, a couple of sips in I began to feel a tad uncomfortable with myself. Almost militant in my belief in moderation, even in pregnancy, every now and again my conviction experiences a wobble. On this day, a sense of guilt began to worm its way into my consciousness and I could almost see each sip of Pimms inexorably leading to the willful demise of my unborn child. Unaware of the alcoholic content of this juniperus liquid, I decided to google Pimms+when+pregnant, to help alleviate some of my anxiety. Silly idea.
According to Charlotte P(184) from Bristol, drinking alcohol in pregnancy is “disgusting.” Ouch. Not the reassurance I was hoping for. Yet, instead of dismissing this sanctimonious proclamation for what it was, I pushed the half-drunk glass away from me and began to shift nervously in my seat. As I read on through opinionated Netmums thread, the voices on the screen felt like they were taking physical form in the room, pointing their pudgy, sewing circle fingers in my face and raising their eyebrows at me in abhorrence. Sadly, Charlotte had caught me on a vulnerable day, distinctly lacking in my usual pluck qua the rules of decorum regarding pregnancy.
Pregnancy is one of those states which attracts a wall of unsolicited advice and judgement and this is a major bugbear for me, as I’m sure I’ve pointed out countless times before. First, it is supremely arrogant. Well done you, you’ve read the latest research piece from the Daily Mail; I bow down to your superior knowledge regarding my condition, my internal monologue often carps toward people. Second, it infers that women have more control over the outcome of their child’s physical and mental well being than they actually do and this is simply oppressive. In Parenthood (1989), when discussing the learning difficulties of their nine-year-old son with the school’s principal and psychologist, Steve Martin stands up and accusatively points to his wife and says “She smoked grass,” betraying his even-handed demeanour and showing himself to be nothing but a horrible chauvinist. It’s all Mary Steenburgen’s fault, obviously. She was the vessel and she was derelict in her duties (never mind she adds the caveat “I never smoked when I was pregnant”).
When pregnant with my first born, I drank heavily for probably the first seven weeks, as I didn’t know I was pregnant (by heavily, I mean heavily for a pregnant person; it wasn’t as if I was having whiskey on my cornflakes or anything). Once aware, I of course augmented my behaviour and lived in a heightened state of worry until my first scan. All was well, fortunately and the subsequent months were spent oscillating between a degree of dietary insouciance (taking heed of the big no nos, you understand) and bouts of nutrition mania, peppered with the occasional pangs of guilt and anxiety. That trip to Provence for example, certainly wasn’t without its pinot noir and washed rind cheese (however in my defense, the latter was eaten by mistake because I failed to fully understand the meaning, thinking it only referred to dairy products with visible mould). Not to mention those glasses of prosecco and few specks of culatello in Parma.
I appreciate that some may deem my seemingly cavalier and Russian roulette style of gestation somewhat irresponsible. Just because women used to sit on their arses for nine months, slugging cocktails and choofing Marlboroughs and many of our parents and grandparents still turned out okay, doesn’t justify the continuance of such brazenly reckless practices. There is considerable evidence for example, that smoking and steady alcohol and caffeine consumption are bad for your baby. That’s pretty much universal. But whether or not one should abstain altogether seems to fluctuate both geographically and annually. For this reason, some women prefer to avoid alcohol and caffeine altogether. I do not, but I certainly monitor it. As I do my cheeses, my runny eggs and my rare meats and fish. My primary yard-stick in terms of alcohol is that when asked by various medical staff throughout both my current and previous pregnancies whether or not I drink, and I say ‘yes,’ and they ask ‘how many units a day?’ and I say ‘perhaps one a week’, they dismiss it with a wave and say, ‘the system doesn’t even allow us to put that in as an option.’
Many women prefer a far more cautious approach, as do most doctors and midwives. Research shifts frequently and because we can never be absolutely certain about how most things effect unborn babies, it’s best to limit the scope of danger. Ergo, avoid anything that may be hazardous. But while I perfectly understand the logic of this course, it opens the floodgates to hysteria. At a barbecue in Italy during my first pregnancy, one of the other guests, a pediatrician no less, castigated me for putting salad on my plate, lecturing me on the dangers of green leaves and toxoplasmosis. My pathetic language skills meant that I couldn’t be bothered to mime my defense to her – that the salad was washed and that, due to having a cat in the house most of my life, according to my doctor I was most likely immune to the disease in the same way one becomes immune after having chicken pox – and I scraped the leaves off my plate for fear of becoming a social pariah.
A similarly neurotic response was described to me by my cousin whose pregnant friend panicked after drinking a cup of licorice tea, demanding all manner of tests from her health carers. This sort of over-pronounced need to have one’s fears allayed is understandable but precisely part of the problem, a problem exacerbated by inconsistency of information and lack of sensible interpretation of the facts. What did this woman hope to achieve? What did she think the tests were going to be able to tell her? Ultrasounds are pretty incredible these days, but there’s still only so much it can tell you. Pregnancy can be a nerve-racking waiting game – you do your best and hope that your child arrives safely and in good health. But if something isn’t sound, if something is more complicated, can it really be attributable to that bag of licorice you ate or that dose of simple linctus you swallowed?
I cannot help but feel we have slid to the opposite end of the spectrum. On the one hand, we are blessed with a proliferation of research and evidence that allows us to be more aware of the various issues relating to pregnancy and how we can best achieve that desired outcome of a healthy baby. Yet on the other hand, we have entered into a realm that is so densely populated with information, so much noise and opinion, that it can be difficult for a pregnant woman not only to navigate, but to even tap into her sense of intuition and hear herself think.
Dame Sally Davies, Chief medical officer, recently lambasted the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists for a report expounding the dangers of chemicals found in innocuous items, like shower gels and non-stick pans. Not only does this risk ‘overloading and overwhelming’ women with conflicting advice, but it can lead to practices of avoidance that actually serve to endanger the health and nutrition of pregnant women, Davies argues. Honestly, what are we advocating here? That women shouldn’t wash with anything but water, shouldn’t cook their food in anything but a toaster and not eat frozen peas? It’s just all completely ridiculous.
Pregnant women need to get a grip, as does the rest of society – an injection of prudence into the fray, as it were. Eat healthily by consuming as many colours of the rainbow in a meal as you can, take your multivitamins, wash your hands, do some yoga, rest well (if you can), and try to avoid smoking crack and bitching about the conduct of other pregnant women.
Now, where did I leave that glass of wine.